Last Thursday, February 6th, Marcus Eriksen, PhD gave a talk at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science about his “Junk Raft” voyage. Eriksen sailed a raft made from 15,000 plastic bottles, a recycled Cessna cockpit and four masts he recovered from a junkyard, from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He did this to promote awareness about the presence of plastic in our oceans and how bad it is for it to be there. The voyage was intended to be a stunt to get the world’s attention, but ended up defining his career when he found bits of plastic in a fish he caught hundreds of miles offshore and planned to eat.
Eriksen said the plastic craze in the United States began in the 1950’s, and he showed the audience a 1955 Time magazine article promoting throwing away one-time use plastic. Use of disposable plastics, like utensils, straws, cups, plates and bags then skyrocketed in the 1990s as it became cheaper and easier to produce disposable plastics. Eriksen said this massive production of plastics was allowed to continue because of misinformation on the issue and its impact on the environment.
He pointed out that the American economy is a “linear economy,” where we extract a resource like oil, make something out of it, like a plastic bag, use it and then throw it away. He also talked about how 50% of trash is shipped to China because it is cheaper to dispose of it there than to recycle and make a new product in the US. If we made new products out of the old we would have a “circular economy.”
There are horrific consequences to this linear economy and its production of disposable plastics on our oceans, but also in all other parts of our environment. In the oceans today, there are 5.25 trillion particles of plastic, weighing in at 269,000 tons. Fish eat this plastic and we eat the fish.
This plastic bottle was recovered from the ocean by Eriksen. It has been chewed on by marine wildlife who thought it was food, a mistake that could cost them their lives.
Sometimes marine animals do not survive long enough to be eaten because the microplastics in their systems kill them. Plastics are also killing animals outside of the oceans. Eriksen was shown a dead camel on a trip to the Middle East. The animal had a trash bundle in its stomach made of hundreds of plastic bags that it had eaten thinking they were food. He then found out from a local veterinarian that over 300 camels had died similar deaths.
The most interesting and surprising part of Eriksen’s lecture was his solution to the problem of plastic pollution. When I have learned about pollution in school or heard about it on television, the solution is usually about what each of us can do as individuals: reduce, reuse, recycle, don’t litter and do compost. Eriksen thinks those are all really good things to do, but he does not believe it will address the problem. He believes the cause of the problem is also the solution, and the cause is the companies that produce billions of disposable plastic goods and sell them all over the world. A single individual can only have so much of an impact, but a big company could have a huge impact if it stopped using plastic bags in all of its stores all over the world, or found a way to reuse the products they sell in the first place so all the plastic does not go in the trash.
In 2009, Marcus Eriksen founded a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic pollution. His group is called 5 Gyres. You can learn more about his organization and how to get involved at https://www.5gyres.org/about-us.